Over the last couple of weeks, some of you may have encountered an advert by a relatively new online school based in Brazil called Open English. The advert became semi-viral among many in the ELT community thanks to facebook and Twitter and this sweeping sense of outrage seems to have its intended effect as it’s now been removed from YouTube and I couldn’t find a copy anywhere on the web. For those of you that didn’t manage to see the advert in its true horror, the dialogue runs like this:
These two want to speak English. One of them goes to a traditional school, the other one studies at OpenEnglish. One of them studies with the same textbook his mother studied with, the other one studies online with multimedia lessons. One has classes with Joana (a Brazilian teacher who’s shown to be dumpy and fairly unattractive – and is also, more fatally, miming a chicken and generally epitomizing a total lack of cool whilst singing “the book is on the table”), the other one has classes with Jenny (who just happens to be a stereotypically ‘hot’ Californian blonde!), who ends the ad by turning seductively to the camera and asking “How about you? What is your choice?”
Quite rightly this ad caused a real stink in Brazil, with even the president of BrazTESOL penning a few critical words on the matter. All of this is well and good and shows the power of the Web at its best. What’s depressingly predictable, though, is the fact that this kind of trash not only still gets made and aired, but still (presumably) sells courses by tapping into age-old prejudices and myths. Whilst to any sane reader, this whole artificial dichotomy seems nonsensical, and we all know that a good teacher is a good teacher, regardless of where they happened to grow up or learn their English, it nevertheless remains a fact of life that there are unscrupulous folk out there making money out of these myths, and that there are also – sadly – both natives and non-natives that buy into such rubbish.
Whilst it’s easy to insist that good teaching is good teaching, I think that the reality is actually slightly more complex that this – and there that are, in fact, several important things that non-natives can do which native-speaker teachers find either impossible or else nigh-on! If we are to finally kill off these kinds of perpetuations of prejudices, then perhaps we need to be rather more appreciative of what it is that the non-native can offer students, and especially monolingual students they share the same L1 with (lest we forget, of course, this is the way the vast majority of EFL classes around the globe are delivered). What I intend to do over the next few posts here is to sing the praises of the non-native speaker teacher and to explore in slightly more depth exactly what these abilities might be.
Before I begin, though, I should make it clear that simply because non-natives CAN do these things, it obviously doesn’t mean that every non-native IS doing them. As such, my aims here are threefold: to highlight excellent practice that non-natives do – or else could – take advantage of; to heighten native speaker teachers’ awareness of these advantages and then to hopefully do my little bit towards ensuring no more NNSTs ever have to be as insulted again as I know they have been by the OpenEnglish advert!
As you all know, there remains in the ELT world a lot of prejudice against NNSTs. All too often, parental expectations lead to a demand for native speakers; this has a knock-on effect on school employment policies, which in turn affects the relative earning power of native and non-natives speaker teachers. Then there is the thorny issue of what qualifications are necessary before one can start teaching. I myself benefited from this mad disparity by flying off to Asia at the tender age of 23, armed only with a CTEFLA certificate following a 4-week course, but officially ready and able to earn many times more than my local counterparts, despite the fact most of them possessed both degrees and Master’s in English and English-language Teaching. In many countries I have visited, a system of semi-apartheid operates, whereby native speakers get the plum fluency and conversation classes, whilst NNSTs are relegated to bilingual grammar lessons. Fairly understandably, as a result of all this obvious bias, many NNSTs end up with an inferiority complex – and, sadly, many native-speakers end up with the opposite! This series of posts will hopefully start to redress this imbalance.
So here goes . . . the first great advantage that I believe non-natives have over their native colleagues is the fact that NNSTS are actually far better – and more realistic – aspirational models of English than natives could ever be! EFL students can possibly aspire to becoming their non-native teacher – a very fluent, articulate speaker of English as a foreign language, able to talk to a wide range of friends and colleagues – by no means just native-speakers, but also Greeks, Germans and so on. However, short of reincarnation, they can NEVER become me – or any other native speaker teacher! Even if I have learned the students’ L1, which does obviously help to set a good role model for them as language learners, it’s still not quite the same as vice versa. Non-native speaker status inevitably means that teachers have actually LEARNED English – as opposed to having just picked it up through fluke of birth. NNSTs also speak their own L1 and are thus far more aware than I could ever be of the kinds of problems – both lexical and grammatical – that students who share their own L1 will have while learning English. These pitfalls and problems are felt in the blood, in the bones.
Of course, a native who has lived in a particular country and who has learned the local language to a good level will also have a considerable degree of similar knowledge. Indeed, any teacher, native or non-native, who teaches students from particular language groups over a long enough period of time, and regardless of whether they speak any of these languages or not, starts to develop an understanding of what impact the various first languages have on users when they attempt to speak English. Only non-natives, though, feel it quite so deeply and can say they have been through the exact same experiences their students are going through in front of them. At their best, these teachers can intuitively feel why a false friend is sounding strange in English, or where the root of a particular repeated / fossilized grammar error may lie – and may well be able to frame this understanding (whether in English or in L1!) in such a way that helps learners grasp their errors most immediately.
Much of the advertising nonsense that exploits the supposed advantage of having a native-speaker teacher plays on the fear that somehow a non-native’s English is bound to be deficient in some way.There are so many flaws in this way of thinking that I don’t know where to begin: with the assumption that knowing loads of language and being able to use it has anything much to do with being able to explain and exemplify clearly? With the way this line of thought deliberately obscures the advantages discussed above? With the notion that what the native may know and that the non-native may not is actually of any use to any EFL student?
I speak English with most of my friends. I read a lot – and all of it in English. I probably know a whole raft of slang and idioms and obscure lexical items that most non-natives don’t. Well, all I can say about that is so what? If you sit and watch a desert with a camel walking across the horizon, from second to second, it’ll be the camel that attracts your attention, despite the fact that it is only maybe 5% of your actual field of vision. We naturally – and, possibly, for good evolutionary reasons – notice difference rather than similarity. As such, many non-native speaker teachers fixate on that which divides us – the 5% – rather than that which UNITES us – the 95%! Much of the 5% that’s specific in my own speech may well be very low frequency among NATIVE-speakers themselves and thus of little – if any – use to EFL students. Possibly, in fact, some of it may even be totally idiosyncratic to me! It takes many natives a while to realise that, and many of us – present company very much included – spent much of our early career thinking that any random idiomatic titbit that springs to mind must automatically be of utility and relevance because . . . well, because it’s somehow ‘real’! One crucial step for any native speaker to really becoming a fully-fledged teacher is to recognise this urge and modify and curtail it!
Finally, I think another fear connected to this whole area is a fairly deep-rooted concern that many NNSTs have: the fear of getting caught out! ‘What if the coursebook I’m using has phrases I’ve never seen before?’, ‘What if students ask me questions about an idiom that I’ve got no idea about?’, ‘What if I try to reformulate what my students are saying on the board and it’s wrong – by native-speaker standards?’
Well, hello?! Welcome to being a teacher! ALL native-speaker teachers find themselves on the spot with alarming regularity. We are all too often asked questions by students that we simply don’t know the answers to, and there is only sane response to this – confess and be done with it! Committing the following fixed phrases to memory has helped me through countless potentially embarrassing moments in the classroom. I recommend you try the same!
“I’m not sure, but I THINK this is how it’s used”
“I’ve never heard that in my life – so it can’t be very useful!”
Oh, and if you REALLY want good adverts for language schools, I would personally suggest that very few could top this banned Dutch one . . .